At war with itself
Following the breakthrough successes of The Division and Destiny, the so called looter-shooter genre has exploded in popularity. It's also been recently combined with the idea of "games as a service", so that players keep coming back for more. Many publishers have been trying to jump aboard, with Square Enix putting their own spin on the formula recently with Marvel's Avengers, albeit unsuccessfully. The newest game to join the ranks is Outriders, also published by Square Enix, but this time coming from the Bulletstorm creators People Can Fly. While the game offers some decently enjoyable action and pretty good end-game design, the bulk of the experience leaves much to be desired.
Outriders takes players to a planet called Enoch, one of the last viable locations that a spaceship with humans have reached, in hopes to restart civilization after Earth suffers through some catastrophic events. You are one of the Outriders, a special military group whose goal is to ensure the mission goes smoothly. Upon landing on the new planet however, the initial scout group disappears, and so you and a few others are sent to investigate. On the surface, you come across a strange signal, which seems to be distorted by the storm, as well as a liquid that seems to affect both humans and local animals in mysterious ways – and shortly after, an anomaly storm wipes out nearly your entire group. You also come into contact with the storm, but instead of killing you it seems to change you.
Despite the obvious dangers, the commander in charge decides it's safe to proceed with the rest of the landings, and a conflict breaks out. In the chaos, your group manages to escape, but only as far as a crashed series of pods with Cryo Chambers. You're put into one, in hopes of surviving the approaching storm and to recover from your wounds. You are awakened 30 years later, to find that the planet is in the midst of armed conflict. It turns out that those who landed all those years ago have split into a variety of groups, and the storms still devastate the planet and mutate the fauna. Although you're left for dead by some crazed enemies in the storm, you suddenly discover that you are now in fact able to sustain fatal injuries, and also have special powers, becoming Altered. After making it out of the storm, you re-unite with some old allies and learn that the signal is still broadcasting, and could hold the answers to this planet's situation.
Outriders tries to weave an interesting and perhaps needlessly complex story. The setup takes a while to get going, and feels like much of the intro could have been trimmed down. The main target of trying to track down the signal is not an overly interesting one, and the obstacles that your team faces along the way feature typical adventure tropes – an uncooperative commander that doesn't let you pass, a mysterious group of survivors that hide in the forests, and so on. The game does a lot of exposition dumping via text and character dialogue, instead of showing you things. In the final third of the game, it's just a series of reveals over radio chatter between you and the group.
The story also isn't helped by the rough flow of cutscenes. All cutscenes have a black screen before and after, and the action almost never lines up between in-game and the cinematic, resulting in cuts that often don't even make sense. People and things get teleported around, the cinematics very frequently end unevenly and immediately, and there was obviously more polish needed. Characters and dialogue could have been better as well – most of the writing is predictable and poorly delivered, with wild swings between humor and supposed drama. One of the few redeeming qualities is the fact that your character remains a fairly careless hero throughout, never hesitant to "put people out of their misery" if that's the easiest solution. In a world of traditional hero archetypes, it's at least a fresh change.
Outriders is mostly focused on its story campaign. Over the course of the 20 or so hours, you will guide your group through a series of locations, each offering a linear level to fight through. You will battle through the typical environments: a snowy mountain, a dense forest, a desert area, and so on. Despite being on an alien planet, everything is rather typical – even the few creative encounters could have easily taken place on Earth. The levels are quite small in size and are entirely linear when it comes to the main quest. There are optional, separate side areas which contain side quests, but those levels are also short and small. The side quests start off interesting, offering bits of story, but toward the second half of the game they simply become encounter areas to eliminate a boss or collect an item. Overall, the scope of the game world feels very constrained, and you pretty much have no room to explore. The very few side paths that exist are so obvious that it doesn't feel satisfying to find the basic loot chest at the end of them.
The game bills itself as a third-person, cover based RPG shooter, but it never goes all-in on any of its design ideas. As a shooter, it plays a bit like Gears of War with an RPG twist – you take cover, shoot at enemies and watch damage numbers, and collect glowing loot that drops. Some of the cover is destructible, but otherwise the encounters play out the same – you enter an area, enemies spawn, and you must eliminate them all before moving on. This isn't inherently bad design, but campaigns in similar games aren't as long as Outriders, making you do this over and over and over again, with no worthwhile changes to switch things up.
The foes you will encounter also leave much to be desired. Across the campaign, the enemies are largely reskins of the same types; human enemies have shotgunners and melee fighters that rush you, assault rifle foes, and long range snipers that snap you out of cover. There's some variety to be had from the mini-bosses, which are tough foes with unique weapons and attacks, such as machine gun wielding armored humans, or the commanders that can call in small fire storms. The alien creatures you encounter have even less diversity, as they are mostly melee focused, with some that spew acid at you from afar, be that on land or flying. The mini-boss creatures are largely just bigger versions of regular enemies.
Enemy AI is quite static and actually works against the game's encounter design. While this is meant to be a cover based shooter, as each area is littered with chest high walls, the enemies don't really abide by that. There are many foes that are melee or close range focused, so they just end up rushing you, which goes completely against the design where cover-based shooting is viable. Instead, especially on higher difficulties, you will be forced to track back; the gameplay seriously becomes more akin to a zombie game like Days Gone, as you endlessly backpedal, putting clip after clip into the horde. The spawns are also based on your position, so you carefully advance in each area to spawn the next wave as it materializes right before your eyes, and backpedal again. This is just one of the many strange design choices in Outriders.
While the encounters stay the same, at least you can switch up how you approach them. At your disposal are a standard allotment of assault rifles, snipers, SMGs, LMGs, and shotguns. Within each type, you may find some variety, such as burst-fire assault rifles, single shot vs. multi shot sniper rifles, and so on. As you keep leveling up and finding better gear, you're likely to have a taste of all weapon types and find the ones that you enjoy the most. Like Gears of War, the weapons don't always feel like they are packing a punch, but it's satisfying to have enemies explode into squishy bits from a close range shotgun blast.
To help further spice things up, you do have to select one of the four available classes. The Devastator is a close-range focused fighter, the Trickster is also close range but focuses on hit and run, the Pyromancer is medium range and works with fire skills, and the Technomancer is a long-range, support class. While this design seems to offer variety on paper, in practice there's not a ton of difference to each one. All classes get the same armor and weapons, so the only thing unique is their 8 special ability skills – of which you can only equip 3 at a time. Functionally, the skills can be similar – the Technomancer can place a turret that fires a series of rockets directly ahead, while the Pyromancer does the same with the Heatwave attack. There are no skills that interact with others, so there's no point trying to spec yourself out differently for multiplayer. This isn't to say that there's no difference between the classes, but the fact that you have to level each one separately – meaning have to grind through the repetitive 20+ hour campaign again – the differences may not be worth the slog.
Each class also has a skill point tree, where you can get minor boosts to your stats and abilities, such as increased damage from certain weapons, reduced skill cooldowns, and so on. Strangely, you only get enough points to fill less than one third of the tree, making it look rather underwhelming. You are free to re-spec at any time, but it's still largely unsatisfying to see the character trees underused.
You might also notice that two classes are close range, which again seems to defeat the game's apparent goal to be a cover-based shooter. But perhaps the biggest factor is how each class restores health. There are no health pickups or automatic regeneration here – instead, you must deal damage in order to heal. Technomancers leech health by shooting enemies, while other classes get a boost of health by taking out foes near them. So you realize it's not at all a cover-based shooter, but instead the kind of game where you're meant to rush around and eliminate foes, hoping that your healing spec will negate the incoming burst damage in time.
Dying isn't too bad – you just get reset to the start of the encounter. The game also features a pretty unique difficulty system in the way of World Tiers. You start off at tier 1, which puts enemies at two XP levels below you, and reduces the quality of gear you find (i.e., Easy difficulty). From there, as you level up, so does the World Tier, increasing the difficulty. By Tier 6, which roughly equates to Very Hard, enemies are three levels above you, and this is likely where most solo players may find their stopping point, as the frustration mounts of having to pump over ten ammo clips into a single boss just to bring it down. Tiers go all the way up to 15, with +12 enemy levels, for the most hardcore players. Thankfully, you can switch between Tiers freely if you find an encounter too difficult. However, note that you will lose all progress to your next Tier unlock when doing so.
To help with the difficulty, you can buy better gear, and use crafting to improve it. However, as with most games of this looter shooter subgenre, it's largely unnecessary until you get to the end-game. New weapons and armor drops with solid frequency, so throughout your trek to max level 30 you'll swap out equipment all the time. Aside from base damage, weapons come equipped with up to three mod slots, which apply special effects to your weapons – anything from slowing/freezing the enemies you hit, to randomly dropping an ordinance on their heads as you shoot. When you dismantle weapons, the mods get added to your library like The Division 2, and then can be crafted onto any future weapons you find. This is a very flexible system compared to other games, not reliant on a lucky perfect roll, whereas your best weapons can be changed and improved in any way you like – though it will cost you a hefty material fee. It's a similar story with armor, though those mod slots instead passively improve your special abilities.
The end-game of Outriders are Expedition missions, and clearly what the developers wanted to make all along. It's a series of combat rooms, between 15 to 30 minutes long, where your goal is to simply make it through hordes of enemies. It's an absolute meatgrinder, with zero cover and overwhelming numbers of foes. It's where you realize that sniper rifles are useless as you get absolutely swarmed with even more melee foes, and all your skills need to focus on crowd control. It can be pretty fun, and is extremely chaotic, though again it's all in the name of increasing the difficulty Tier, and therefore the loot quality at the end. At least it significantly switches up the gameplay after the lengthy and repetitive campaign, and should give players a few more hours of entertainment.
Expeditions and higher difficulty campaign Tiers are meant to be tackled with others. Due to the relatively small scale of the world, only up to three players can play together. What should have been a fairly typical tacked-on multiplayer design for Outriders becomes its biggest headache and another bizarre design choice. For one thing, despite having no social hub areas like Destiny or The Division, the game insists on being always-online, which means you can't even pause it when playing solo. It also means you can't play at all when the servers are down – and they have been down a lot, with hours and hours of downtime during launch week.
While there is cross-platform multiplayer, it's troubling to get going with friends having to use shared text codes. If you'd rather just matchmake into random groups – it rarely seems to work, especially for the campaign, and only gets marginally better when you reach Expeditions. And when it does finally work and you play with others, the game becomes completely unstable. Across just three hours of trying to play with others (both campaign and Expeditions), the game crashed no less than 20 times; the longest multiplayer session we had was less than 60 minutes. In the menus, in the middle of action, in the lobby - it crashes everywhere.
Outriders isn't a great looking game, either. Along with its rough cutscenes and dated design, the visuals leave much to be desired. It's a long way from the polished triple-A experience that fans may expect from a modern full-priced game, with low detail in the environments, nothing being interactive apart from occasional destructible cover, and some texture streaming issues. The animations are rough and basic, and the facial animations are sometimes entirely unfinished, bringing up scary memories of Mass Effect Andromeda. Audio design is rather average at best, with repetitive music tracks and shallow combat effects. At least, the framerate holds steady on Xbox Series X.
Outriders is a game that borrows ideas from others, but has no clue how to execute or improve on them. The developers, People Can Fly, have clearly taken inspiration from their previous work on the Gears of War franchise, Bulletstorm, and others like Destiny and The Division. It's possible that publisher Square Enix also chimed in with their Marvel's Avengers formula. But the end result is a game that's got a few good ideas – like how to handle end-game loot and crafting, and some over the top satisfying combat in Expeditions, but for the most part it takes way too long to get there, slogging through outdated design that's in conflict with itself. And although the developers are adamant this isn't a "game as a service", and there are currently no microtransactions, Outriders still needs a lot of fixing and polishing before it can be recommended, or perhaps it should have launched at a slightly lower price point.